Donald Trump and the Hollow Truth of American Evangelicalism

Billy Graham relates, to his own shame, his low point in mixing politics and religion. After seeing President Truman for the first time, the press waiting outside the White House asked him to reenact what he had done with the President. Graham obligingly knelt on the lawn, as if in prayer, for a photo op.  The tall preacher in his white suit and out sized Bible, kneeling at the behest of reporters, captures the willing eagerness of American evangelicals to gain entry into the centers of power.  Graham’s biography reveals his long and close association with Richard Nixon and his near disillusionment at the revelations of Water Gate.  Graham is shocked at the vulgarity of Nixon (revealed in the White House tapes) – someone he considered to be the best of Christians.  Graham, in spite of his disappointment with Nixon, never quit the pursuit of power through association but modeled it throughout his lifetime. 

Evangelicals have continued to attempt to wield power through a succession of presidents, but much like Graham, they naively assume their voice is heard and their influence felt. The genius of Ronald Reagan, a man who seemed devoid of any profound religiosity or religious affiliation, marked the high point of this manipulation of evangelicals.  The evangelical leaders who struggled hardest and longest to put him into office relate the most profound disappointment.  Reagan simply ignored them and their agenda as President.

Donald Trump’s manipulation of the religious right is demonstrable proof of evangelicals’ willingness to kneel when and where they are asked.  He is continued proof, if any were needed, of the irrelevance of evangelical influence in American public life.  None of this is surprising or recent.  Roger Stone, credited with engineering Trump’s campaign and image, is an open advocate of Machiavellian politics – “win by any means” – “infamy is as good as fame, what is to be avoided, at all costs, is obscurity” – “repeat a lie often enough and everyone will believe it” – “perception is truth.”  Stone has been a Washington operative – employing these methods from the time of Nixon.  Trump was simply the perfect match for a political operative devoid of any moral center.

What has been surprising is the public nature (NETFLIX features Stone in a documentary explaining all of the above) of this moral hollowness and the fact that it did not hurt, but helped, candidate Trump in garnering the evangelical vote.  Trump’s proclamation that he has never asked for forgiveness, his demonstrated unfamiliarity with the Bible, his sheer crudeness and callowness and denial that he “does bad things,” his open misogyny and abuse of women, is a low point in what might be called Christian, even by Washington’s already low standard.  The danger is not that Trump may not be sincere in his faith (what little he acknowledges), or that he may not qualify to be counted Christian. The danger is that this is a demonstration, not just of the hollowness of the man, but the hollowness of the religion which would embrace him.

His Christian advocates may not all be willing to sign up for Trump’s health and wealth gospel but their own version of the gospel seems plastic enough to fit Jesus to a similar frame. In this understanding, the Gospel is not an “offense” to already existing norms, rather, it is a means of getting along more successfully given these norms.  What evangelicals seem to have missed is that the New Testament is not arguing that Jesus is true according to the standards of our society.  Trump speaks of “thoughts of Jesus as comforting and encouraging” him.  His Jesus does not challenge or require that he go in the opposite direction, let alone challenge his notions of success.

In the New Testament, Christ is overturning the very limited possibilities of truth as they are marked out in various societies, including our own. What we have in the N.T. Jesus is an alternative mode and means of truth and alternative notions of wealth and success. By definition, in this understanding, the Gospel is an offence – success beginning as it does from the self-emptying modeled by Christ – because it presumes to overturn the determining factors of truth.

John Howard Yoder points to examples from the New Testament of the way in which the Gospel is a direct challenge to the frame of reference in which it is preached. Each of his examples seems to counter, not only the presumptions of 1st century cultures, but the presumption of 21st century evangelicals in the following ways: 1. In the New Testament, the writers use the linguistic world which they are entering, not to accommodate it, but to show that Jesus overturns its presumptions and that He is above the cosmos it entails. 2. In each case, there is focus on suffering and rejection (of both Christ and the disciples) due to the cosmic hierarchy, and this is precisely what accredits Christ’s lordship. 3. Jesus lordship is made known directly in his engagement with the powers – that is, His is a real-world lordship in which everything is demonstrably being brought into subjection to his reign. 4. Christian salvation is not integrated into an already existing salvation system. “What we are called to enter into is the self-emptying and the death—and only by that path, and by grace, the resurrection—of the Son.”[1]

For example, John’s Gospel demonstrates complete familiarity with the Gnostic frame of truth – only to undermine and overturn this truth. As Yoder describes it, “instead of tailoring Jesus to fit the slots prepared for him, John breaks the cosmology’s rules. At the bottom of the ladder, the Logos is claimed to be coeval with God, not merely the first of many emanations.”[2] Then there is no more ladder, as the cosmology has been “smashed,” its language seized. “No longer does the concept of Logos solve a problem of religion, reconciling the eternal with the temporal; it carries a proclamation of identification, incarnation, drawing all who believe into the power of becoming God’s children.”[3]

Jesus, in John, directly challenges the empire of Rome and the religion of Israel using the very language and idiom it understands to proclaim Jesus as Prince of Peace (not Caesar), Jesus as true Temple (not Herod’s Temple), and Jesus as the incarnate Logos (rather than acquiesce to the dis-incarnate logos of the Greeks).  As Miroslav Volf describes it, the aim of God’s redemptive activity, as portrayed in John, “is to overcome oppositional dualities— darkness versus light, below versus above, falsehood versus truth—so as to leave room in creation only for reconciled differences.” Christ enters into the darkness so as to dispel it.  He lives in such a way that he is continually defeating death and his own death and resurrection puts asunder the duality of life and death.

The addresses of the Epistle to the Hebrews had a settled cosmology which the writer proceeds, as well, to overturn in his appeal to Christ. Angels at the top with their access to the divine presence and priests at the bottom with only a shadow of this presence, are turned the other way around by the Priest who enters the holy of holies in heaven. He is declared greater than the angels precisely because of his incarnation, suffering, and death.  Where the Hebraic cosmology, in its Hellenized version, might privilege disembodied spirits (angels), it is the resurrected, ascended, Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father.  His position is not one that sets aside embodiment; rather it is suffering and immortal embodiment that makes him a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.

This cosmic sovereignty – this truth working itself out in history –  by its very nature is not something we possess or own (as we might the trues of modernity or the local trues of our social order). This is not a truth that we can own and manipulate in that fashion. “We do not yet see everything in subjection to him.”  We have not yet been faithful to the end. We have not yet attained fully to this truth.  Because that is not the way this truth works. We can only prove or bring about the sovereignty of this truth in our faithfulness to Jesus.  “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, [now] crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Heb. 2:8–9).

The Christians at Colossae, likewise, had their cosmology ready, with a modest slot for Jesus. Their world is held together by a network of principalities and powers, visible and invisible. “Religious behavior (fasting, festivals) helps one to find one’s way through the tangle. Visions and angelolatry help to manipulate the powers.”  Once again Jesus is proclaimed, not as part of the cosmos, but as its Lord. “The powers are not illuminated, appeased, manipulated by him, but subdued and broken.” The believer risen with Christ has died to them and is no longer under their power because the Son is the image of the invisible creator, holding all things together, reconciling all things, head of the body.[4]  Once again, the truth of Christ is a local, demonstrable, truth as it challenges the Colossian world view.  But it is on the basis of this challenge that the deep structure of the universal truth of Christ is apprehended.

Revelation (Rev 4:1—5:4) presents in visionary language the puzzle of history which no one can break open and discern. “There is no one worthy among the elders, the angels, or the seraphim. But then the Lamb appears, next to the throne, perfect in the sevenfoldness of his horns and eyes, able because he was slain to take history in his hands, unstuck the seals, and unroll the world’s judgment and salvation.”[5] Christ is not the one who brings us transcendent principles, truth from outside of history in the trues of reason. Certainly, he is wisdom but the very nature of wisdom is that it relates to the world. His truth opens the seals because it relates to history.

In each instance, the truth of Christ is one that directly challenges the principles, cosmology, and basic assumptions of the world it enters. The very point of the New Testament seems to be to prevent the sort of accommodation we are now witnessing. There is the Gnostic version of Christianity, which John pronounces is of the anti-Christ. There is the Judaized version of Christianity, which Paul pronounces is a return to slavery on the order of idolatry.  There is the Hellenized Christianity, which Hebrews declares is in danger of apostasy. There was nothing about these biblical texts that was alien or meaningless.  They posed a challenge of the most profound kind in an idiom and frame of reference that overturned and held at bay the world to which they were addressed.[6]

The Americanized version of Christianity seems to have succumbed to what John, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews warn against.  Evangelicalism bears all the marks of succumbing to the principalities and powers of a modern disembodied Gnostic form of the faith.  Perhaps this is the service Donald Trump can perform for the Church.  Here is a marked and hollow degrading of Christianity which calls for a return to the sort of challenge Christ offers to every limited human construct.

[1] Yoder, John Howard. A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology (pp. 29-30). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Yoder, (p. 27).

[3] Ibid

[4] Yoder, p. 28.

[5] Ibid

[6] Yoder, p. 30.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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